An increasing number of voices suggest Parliament needs to be involved in triggering Article 50, the first legal step towards the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. But while 51.9% voted to leave the European Union in the referendum on 23 June 2016, only 24% of MPs declared support for Leave during the referendum campaign. This raises the ancient question of how MPs should vote, in the case of a motion to implement ‘Brexit’: should they simply follow the desires of their constituents, expressed so clearly in a referendum? Or should they follow what Burke famously called their own ‘enlightened conscience’?
Comparing BBC data on MPs’ positions in the debate on EU membership to regional results and constituency predictions by the academic Chris Hanretty (University of East Anglia) shows how common splits between the people and their representatives were.
It is not possible to determine with certainty which MPs voted differently to the majority of their constituents, because votes are secret and results are generally declared by local authority (and local authorities rarely match up neatly to constituencies). However, both local authorities and constituencies are nested within regional boundaries.
Looking at the regional level, 40.2% of all MPs supported the same side as the majority of voters. The table below shows the largest discrepancies were found in the North East (89.7% of MPs did not align with the majority in their region), Wales (87.5%) and the North West (85.3%). The smallest differences were found in Scotland (no differences) and London (17.8%).
While data on how constituencies voted is not available, UEA academic Chris Hanretty has developed a model to estimate referendum results at constituency level for England and Wales. The methodology is discussed in this blog, which also provides a list of constituencies.
According to Hanretty’s model, Leave would have won a majority of the votes in 421 constituencies and Remain in 152. Matching his constituency predictions up to available data on MP’s voting intentions suggests 30 MPs voting Leave and 292 MPs voting Remain were at odds with the majority of their constituents. That is, 20% of MPs representing ‘Remain’ constituencies supported Leave and 69% of MPs representing ‘Leave’ constituencies supported Remain.
In the 94 constituencies where the majority was smallest, i.e. where the winning side received between 50% and 53% of the votes, 61 MPs (65%) intended to vote at odds with the majority of their constituents – but in line with a significant minority of them.
Overall, 237 (41%) MPs intended to vote the same way the majority of their constituents were estimated to vote, and 322 (56%) MPs did not. Voting intentions were not known for 13 MPs (2%).
If it comes to a parliamentary vote on Brexit, the 322 MPs who disagree with the majority of their voting constituents face a choice between changing their mind and voting with their constituency, or persisting in their opinion and voting with their ‘enlightened conscience’ (and the minority in their constituency).